The success of a car accident claim often hinges on showing that the other driver was to blame for the crash.
If you've been in a traffic accident, one of the most crucial questions is: Who was at fault? Here's why the answer is so important:
- In most states, the driver who caused the accident (the at-fault driver) will bear financial responsibility (typically through an insurance company) for injuries and other losses caused by the accident.
- Being at fault for an accident can also cause your insurance premiums to rise, add demerit points to your driving record, and even lead to criminal charges in some cases (for example, if you were driving recklessly or under the influence of alcohol).
- As a practical matter, the issue of fault will come up when you talk to an insurance adjuster after an accident. If you can't reach a car accident settlement, the issue of fault will come up again if you file a car accident lawsuit.
What Is Fault?
In the language of personal injury law (which governs situations in which one person harms another), "fault" is the key concept that lets an injured person recover compensation for their harm when another person or business is to blame (or "at fault") for the underlying accident or incident that caused that harm. So, in a car accident case, the person who was at fault for the crash is usually financially responsible (typically through their car insurance company) for all resulting harm suffered by others.
In a car accident insurance claim or in court, you'll have to prove:
- The law required the other person involved in the accident (driver, pedestrian, bicyclist) to be reasonably careful.
- The other person wasn't careful.
- The other person's conduct caused your injuries.
- You suffered losses (like vehicle damage, injuries, and lost income).
In this article, we'll focus on how to prove that the other person involved in the accident wasn't careful. This is called "breaching" or violating the duty of care. In a car accident, people can be negligent by doing something that they shouldn't do (like speeding), or by failing to do something that they should have done (like rolling through a stop sign). Sometimes it's obvious when a driver violates the duty of care. For example, when a driver rear-ends you, that driver was almost certainly careless. (See below for more examples of "no-doubt" liability.) In other cases, a breach of duty might be harder to prove.
Why Proving Fault Matters After a Car Accident
The issue of fault is important because nearly all states follow a "fault" system when it comes to financial responsibility for a car accident. (About a dozen states are "no-fault" states or follow a hybrid system.)
In "fault" states, the person at fault for the crash (or, more accurately, the at-fault driver's insurer) will have to pay for the losses of the other driver, passengers, and anyone else harmed by the accident. Losses (called "damages") include things like car repairs, medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering.
When it comes to car accident claims and personal injury lawsuits, proving fault means proving negligence. If you're negligent in a car accident, you are at fault.
If you and the other driver share fault for the accident, you might avoid full liability under a comparative or contributory negligence defense. For example, say you are making a left turn and you hit a van that is speeding through an intersection. You might be 80% at fault for failing to make a safe left turn, and the driver of the van might be 20% at fault for speeding. Your insurance company might only have to pay 80% of the van driver's losses because the van driver was 20% at fault for the accident.
10 Steps You Can Take to Help Prove You're Not At Fault For Your Car Accident
Your ability to prove that the other driver was at fault for a car accident (or your ability to dispute a finding that you were at fault) can be the difference between getting a payout and getting nothing. It might also affect your current and future car insurance rates and your ability to pursue (or defend against) a personal injury liability lawsuit.
1. Collect the Other Driver's Information at the Scene of the Car Accident
Make sure you exchange information with all drivers and others involved in your accident. That means getting names, addresses, driver's license numbers, car insurance companies/policy numbers, phone numbers, and email addresses. Take down the license plate numbers of any vehicles involved in the crash too.
2. Get a Police Report
After a car accident, a state or local law enforcement officer might come to the scene (almost certainly if someone is injured). An officer might interview you, the other driver, and any witnesses and then write a report. The report might include the officer's opinion that someone violated a specific traffic law and that the violation caused the accident. You can ask the law enforcement agency for a copy or, you ask the insurance adjuster who is handling your claim for a copy. Learn more about police reports and car accident claims.
3. Report the Car Accident to Law Enforcement and the DMV
In most states, you need to report a car accident in which anyone was injured or vehicle damage was sustained, typically to local law enforcement. Depending on the rules in your state, you might also need to notify the department of motor vehicles (or similarly-named state agency) about the accident and follow any required protocol. For example, in California, you need to report a car accident to the DMV within 10 days of the crash if:
- anyone involved in the accident was injured (however slightly)
- anyone was killed in the accident, and/or
- the crash resulted in property damage (meaning damage to a vehicle or real property) of more than $1,000.
4. Document Vehicle Damage
Before you get your car repaired, take pictures of it (at the scene of the accident, if possible). The location of the damage can be revealing. For example, if there is rear-end damage to your car, you'll have a leg up in proving the other driver was at fault.
5. Contact Witnesses and Get Their Statements
If you're aware of any neutral witnesses to the accident, try to get their contact information. You might want to get in touch with them later or ask them to write down a description of the accident at the scene. Certainly the insurance adjuster and your attorney will be interested in hearing what any witnesses have to say about the accident and what might have caused it. There's no better way to avoid having the "Who was at fault?" question come down to your word against the other driver's.
6. Take Pictures of the Accident Scene
If you can, take pictures of the accident scene from all directions—close-ups and from a distance. Be sure to document all traffic signs, skid marks, the location of any vehicle debris, road conditions, and anything else that might help paint the picture of how and why the car accident happened.
7. Research Traffic Laws
Research traffic laws in your state. You can find these laws (called statutes) in what's called the "Vehicle Code" in most states. Your state's motor vehicle department might have a book with basic traffic laws (sometimes called "The Rules of the Road"). These resources are available online or at public libraries. Focus your research on traffic rules that might have come into play in your particular accident. Analyze these rules against any traffic control devices (red lights, stop signs), yield signs, and other circumstances surrounding your crash, and see if you can build a case for the other driver's having committed a traffic violation leading up to your accident.
8. Get Necessary Medical Treatment
At the first hint of any pain or discomfort, or just a sense that something's not quite right with a particular part of your body, see your doctor or go to the emergency room. Obviously your well-being is the priority here, but if you end up making a claim after your car accident, you'll need to be able to show that you received prompt medical attention for legitimate injuries. Few things support an injury claim better than medical records describing the nature and extent of those injuries, and their effects on your life. Learn more about the importance of getting medical treatment after a car accident.
9. Inform Your Insurance Company of the Accident
Under the terms of your car insurance policy, you're almost always obligated to tell the company about any incident that might trigger coverage or lead to the filing of a claim. So when you're in any kind of car accident, it's important to let your insurer know about it right away. Learn more about contacting your insurance company after a car accident.
10. Submit Your Insurance Claim and Supporting Evidence
Most insurance companies have "Start a Claim"-style apps and other online claim-filing tools. You can usually use these to file your claim and submit supporting documentation. If it makes more sense to file a claim directly with the at-fault driver's insurance company (this is called a "third party" claim), your own insurer might be able to help get you started with that process. Learn more about starting a car accident claim.
The insurance company should be fairly responsive once your claim is filed, and it'll probably let you know if any records are missing or if they need any additional information in order to investigate the accident and analyze your claim. But don't hesitate to check in with the insurer and ask about the status of your claim, especially if there seems to be a delay. Ask if there's anything you can do to keep things moving, and be sure to send over any relevant records or new information as it comes in. Learn more about how the insurance company investigates a car accident claim.
You May Need to Sue the At-Fault Driver
If you've tried to resolve your car insurance claim on your own, and the insurance company is disputing a crucial point (like fault for the accident) or simply isn't coming to the negotiating table with a reasonable settlement offer, you might need to escalate things by filing a car accident lawsuit in court.
Taking the "I'll see you in court" stance is sure to get the insurance company to sit up and take your claim more seriously, but continuing to go it alone probably isn't the best strategy at this point.
A Lawyer's Help Is Crucial in a Car Accident Lawsuit
There's no substitute for a lawyer's experience and expertise once your car accident case proceeds to court. Between legal filings, evidence-gathering, and the discovery process, a lot goes into handling a car accident lawsuit. This is also when settlement talks will ramp up—the insurance company will be eager to put a bow on your claim rather than continue spending resources on it—so your lawyer's negotiating skills will be key at this stage. Learn more about how a car accident attorney can help.
What Should I Do If I Sustain Serious Injuries From My Car Accident?
In most car accident claim scenarios, you're not going to receive a settlement from the at-fault driver's insurer before your first accident-related medical bills come in, especially if your injuries are serious and treatment is ongoing. So those bills will need to be paid in the meantime.
If you have certain kinds of car insurance coverage (like personal injury protection/PIP or medical payments/MedPay), you might be able to file claims for reimbursement of medical bills as they come in. But chances are you'll need to use your health insurance to pay for treatment of your car accident injuries, at least initially, until the fault picture is sorted out and you reach a satisfactory settlement. Learn more about using health insurance for car accident injuries.
If you don't have health insurance, your lawyer might be able to arrange for necessary medical treatment from a network of health care professionals who are willing to treat your car accident injuries now, and receive payment later on down the line.
What If My Vehicle Was Totaled?
Beyond injuries, fault for a car accident also dictates financial responsibility for vehicle damage. The driver who caused the accident (usually through their insurer) is liable for all resulting property damage. So, as long as the at-fault driver has adequate property damage liability coverage, you'll make a claim for damage to (or "total loss" of) your vehicle through that coverage. Learn more about what happens when the insurance company says your car is a total loss.
If the at-fault driver is uninsured, or if you want to work with your own insurance company under your collision coverage (if you have it), that's an option even when it looks like the damage to your car is bad enough that it will be declared a total loss. If you do use your collision coverage to recover your car's "actual cash value," your insurer will typically turn around and pursue the at-fault driver (or their insurer) to get back what they paid to you.
"No-Doubt" Liability Car Accidents
If you're involved in certain kinds of vehicle accidents, the other driver is at fault 99% of the time, and insurance companies hardly bother to argue about it.
If someone hits you from behind, it is virtually never your fault, regardless of why you stopped. A basic rule of the road requires a driver to be able to stop his or her vehicle safely if traffic is stopped ahead. A driver who cannot stop safely is not driving as safely as the person in front.
The other sure-fire part of the rear-end accident claim is that the vehicle damage often proves how it happened: If one car's front end is damaged and the other's rear end is also damaged, there can't be much argument about who struck whom. Of course, the driver of the car that hit you may have a claim against someone who caused you to stop suddenly, or against a third car that pushed his car into yours, but that doesn't change his or her responsibility for injuries to you and damage to your car.
Keep in mind, however, that even if you have been rear-ended, in a few circumstances your own carelessness may reduce your compensation under the rule of "comparative negligence." A common example is when one or both of your brake or tail lights were out, especially if the accident happened at night. Another example is if you had mechanical problems but failed to do all you could to move the vehicle off the road.
Read more about fault in rear-end car collisions.
A car making a left turn is almost always liable for a collision with a car coming straight in the other direction. Exceptions to this near-automatic rule are rare and difficult to prove, but they can occur if:
- The car going straight was going well over the speed limit.
- The car going straight went through a red light.
- The left-turning car began its turn when it was safe, but something unexpected made it slow down or stop. This is an extremely difficult exception to use because a basic rule of the road says a car making a left turn must wait until it can safely complete the turn before moving in front of oncoming traffic.
As with a rear-end collision, the location of the damage on the cars sometimes makes it difficult for the driver to argue that the accident happened in some way other than during a left turn.
Next Steps After a Car Accident
For more information, get the basics on proving fault in personal injury accidents. And for a step-by-step guide to the car accident claim process, check out How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).
You might also want to talk to a car accident lawyer about your options and your best path forward, especially if the crash resulted in serious injuries. You can submit information about your case right on this page, and connect with a car accident lawyer in your area. You can also learn more about finding the right injury lawyer for you and your case.